A broad coalition of farm and conservation groups says a USDA-run carbon bank should be used to test ways to establish carbon accounting guidelines, expand the use of climate-friendly farming practices and enable small-scale farms and minority producers to benefit from carbon markets.

The concept of a USDA-managed carbon bank remains controversial on Capitol Hill, where many Republicans are strongly opposed to the idea of USDA employing its Commodity Credit Corp. spending authority to trade in carbon credits and set a floor under their price. 

Recommendations released by the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance on Monday focus on using the carbon bank to run a limited series of pilot projects. That was intentionally in line with how Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he would initially use a carbon bank, which is the brainchild of Robert Bonnie, President Joe Biden's nominee as USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation programs

FACA continues to say that its support for a carbon bank is contingent on Congress increasing the $30 billion limit on CCC's borrowing authority.

Andrew Walmsley, a congressional director for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the carbon bank concept has received the most attention of any of the 40 recommendations that the group originally released last November. The new report is intended to address questions that have been raised since then about the concept, he said. 

The carbon bank report envisions the pilot projects as both paving the way for large-scale carbon markets as well as helping scale up the use of farming practices that can qualify for credits or some form of payment. The report offered no recommendations on the size of the pilots. One of FACA's recommended goals for the pilot projects is to set criteria and guidelines for carbon accounting that then can be used for endorsing standards.

The projects would be used to “develop consistent and credible criteria" for such uses as the permanence of the carbon sequestration or reduced emissions; the risks of the emission reductions being reversed; and the issue of “additionality,” the limitation of credits to new practices or emission reductions.

Those criteria, in turn, would be used “to account for the carbon impacts of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices and project types” and to “set minimum standards to provide needed benchmarking of protocols,” according to the report.

The pilots also should be used to “develop, improve and scale” and promote the widespread adoption of climate-smart farming practices and “critical climate infrastructure,” the report says.

Expanding the use of climate-friendly practices would entail among other things facilitate “short- and long-term financial and technical support for producers and landowners, the report says.

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Ben Thomas, senior policy director for agriculture with the Environmental Defense Fund, said the pilot projects would broadly be “targeted towards how can we achieve climate benefits, measure them along the way, prove out concepts to help support the markets that are currently existing in the space.”

Thomas, who helped lead the development of the latest report, said FACA sees the pilots working in concert with farm bill conservation programs, which subsidize the cost of new equipment and structures as well as practices. Lawmakers such as Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., are working to get increased funding for the programs included in an upcoming climate and infrastructure package.

FACA soon will release another set of recommendations for tax credits and other incentives for practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon.

In addition to AFBF and EDF, FACA’s membership includes the National Farmers Union, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, The Nature Conservancy, FMI-The Food Industry Association, National Alliance of Forest Owners and numerous commodity organizations.

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